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What steps to take when you lose a will

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Q. I know my mother had a will and there was a trust also. We can’t find any copies, and we don’t know who her attorney was. How can we track this down?
— Lost

A. There are plenty of clues you can follow to track this down.

You didn’t make it clear in your question whether your mom is incapacitated or if she’s died.

If she’s dead, the first thing you need to do is to make sure a will hasn’t already been probated, said Shirley Whitenack, an estate planning attorney with Schenck, Price, Smith & King in Florham Park.

She said you can do this by contacting the surrogate in the county where your mother lived at the time of her death. Such records are public.

Next, go through your mother’s papers to see where she did her banking and find out whether she had a safe deposit box there, Whitenack said. You can also review your mother’s checkbook or bank statements to find out whether any attorneys were paid.

“The attorney may have the original will and trust or a signed copy of the will or trust,” Whitenack said. “The reader’s mother may have kept business cards or letters from a financial advisor who may know the whereabouts of a trust. Tax returns should also be checked to see whether they contain information pertaining to a trust.”

It also is possible that your mom hid the documents.

“Wills and trusts have been found in hidden in rafters and in freezers, to name some interesting hiding places,” Whitenack said.

You can also ask relatives and friends if they know whether your mom ever consulted a lawyer or financial advisor. If an unsigned copy of the will is found, it may be possible to have it probated with the help of an attorney, she said.

Even if such documents are found, however, you may be unable to get information from the attorney or financial institution if you were not appointed as executor or trustee.

“In that case, the reader may want to apply to the surrogate in the county where her mother resided at the time of her death to be appointed administrator,” Whitenack said. “If the will is subsequently discovered, it still can be probated.”

Karin Price Mueller writes the Bamboozled column for The Star-Ledger and she’s the founder of . Click here to sign up for the NJMoneyHelp.com weekly e-newsletter. Like NJMoneyHelp.com on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

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